Progress

Be it resolved, humankind’s best days lie ahead...

November 6, 2015

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Progress. It is one of the animating concepts of the modern era. From the Enlightenment onwards, the West has had an enduring belief that through the evolution of institutions, innovations and ideas, the human condition is improving. This process is supposedly accelerating as new technologies, individual freedoms and the spread of global norms empowers individuals and societies around the world. But is progress inevitable? Its critics argue that human civilization has become different, not better, over the last two and a half centuries. What is seen as breakthrough or innovation in one period becomes a setback or limitation in another. In short, progress is an ideology not a fact; a way of thinking about the world as opposed to a description of reality.

To engage with this big, timeless debate of our era, the Munk Debate will move the motion: be it resolved humankind’s best days lie ahead.

The Results

Pre-Debate

71%

Pro

29%

Con

Post-Debate

73%

Pro

27%

Con

Pro wins with 2% vote gain.

The Debaters

Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker

Pro

"It’s just a brute fact that we don't throw virgins into volcanoes any more. We don't execute people for shoplifting a cabbage. And we used to."

Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker

Pro

"It’s just a brute fact that we don't throw virgins into volcanoes any more. We don't execute people for shoplifting a cabbage. And we used to."

Named one of Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World,” Steven Pinker helps non-specialists understand the science behind human thought and action. A pioneering cognitive scientist, Pinker has written for The New York Times and Nature, and is the author of bestselling books, including The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, as well as the landmark study on human progress The Better Angels of Our Nature, which garnered a New York Times Book Review Notable Book of the Year award and was chosen for Mark Zuckerberg’s book club. The Blank Slate and How the Mind Works were both finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. His acclaimed “language” series includes The Language Instinct, Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature and The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.

A native of Montreal, Pinker is Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard, and has also taught at Stanford and at MIT. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, has won a number of teaching prizes and was named among Newsweek’s “100 Americans for the Next Century.” His research on visual cognition and the psychology of language has received numerous awards, including the Troland Research Award from the National Academy of Sciences.

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Matt Ridley

Matt Ridley

Pro

"The world has never been a better place to live in, and it will keep on getting better."

Matt Ridley

Matt Ridley

Pro

The world has never been a better place to live in, and it will keep on getting better.

Matt Ridley’s books have sold over one million copies, been translated into 30 languages, short-listed for nine major literary prizes and won several awards. With BA and DPhil degrees from Oxford University, he worked for The Economist for nine years as science editor, Washington correspondent and American editor, before becoming a self-employed writer and businessman. He was founding chairman of the International Centre for Life in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. He was non-executive chairman of Northern Rock plc and Northern 2 VCT plc. He also commissioned the Northumberlandia landform sculpture and country park in northeastern England. He currently writes the Mind and Matter column in The Wall Street Journal and writes regularly for the British newspaper The Times.

As Viscount Ridley, he was appointed to the House of Lords in February 2013. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and of the Academy of Medical Sciences, and a foreign honourary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

His latest book, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, argues that human beings are not only wealthier but also healthier, happier, cleaner, cleverer, kinder, freer, more peaceful and more equal than they have ever been. He argues this is because the source of human innovation is, and has been for 100,000 years, not individual inspiration through reason but collective intelligence evolving by trial and error resulting from the sharing of ideas through exchange and specialization. The secret to human prosperity is that everybody is working for everybody else.

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Alain de Botton

Alain de Botton

Con

"Nothing human can ever be free of blemishes. There cannot be an end to boom and bust, mayhem and death."

Alain de Botton

Alain de Botton

Con

Nothing human can ever be free of blemishes. There cannot be an end to boom and bust, mayhem and death.

Alain de Botton was born in Zurich in 1969 and now lives in London. He is a writer of essayistic books that have been described as a “philosophy of everyday life.” He has written on love, travel, architecture and literature. His books have been bestsellers in 30 countries. De Botton also started and helps to run a London-based school called The School of Life, dedicated to a new vision of education, and authors pieces for its YouTube channel. His newest book, published in February 2014, is titled The News: A User’s Manual

De Botton’s first book, Essays in Love (titled On Love in the United States) was published when he was 23 and has sold two million copies worldwide. It minutely analyzed the process of falling in and out of love, in a style that mixed elements of fiction and non-fiction. With How Proust Can Change Your Life, de Botton’s work reached a truly global audience. It was followed by The Consolations of Philosophy, The Art of Travel, Status Anxiety, The Architecture of Happiness, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, Religion for Atheists and Art as Therapy. In the summer of 2009, de Botton was appointed Heathrow Airport’s first writer-in-residence and wrote a book about his experiences: A Week at the Airport

De Botton continues his work with the architectural organization he founded, Living Architecture, which aims to give everyone access to the work of some of the greatest architects in the world. 

His latest book is The News: A User’s Manual, which urges people to think differently about the media and to recognize the ways in which our attention spans and mentalities are manipulated.

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Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell

Con

"The idea that because things have gotten better in the past they will continue to do so in the future is a fallacy I would have thought confined to the lower reaches of Wall Street."

Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell

Con

The idea that because things have gotten better in the past they will continue to do so in the future is a fallacy I would have thought confined to the lower reaches of Wall Street.

Malcolm Gladwell is a Canadian journalist and the author of five New York Times bestsellers: The Tipping PointBlinkOutliersWhat the Dog Saw, and now, his latest, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants. He has been named one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World” by Timemagazine and one of Foreign Policy magazine’s “Top 100 Global Thinkers.” 

Gladwell has explored how ideas spread in the Tipping Point, decision making in Blink and the roots of success in Outliers. With David and Goliath he examines our understanding of the advantages of disadvantages, arguing that we have underestimated the value of adversity and over-estimated the value of privilege. 

Gladwell has been a staff writer for The New Yorkersince 1996. He has won a national magazine award and been honoured by the American Psychological Society and the American Sociological Society. He was previously a reporter for The Washington Post.

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